This might come as a surprise to you. Back then, the design program at the University of Maryland was not part of the UMD Department of Art. We were part of the Department of Human Ecology. Human Ecology was akin to home economics. What began as craft and home decor classes evolved into Crafts and Interior Design, then a Graphic Design program. The Department of Art did not want anything to do with teaching design. They said it was “vocational” and did not fit with their liberal arts mission. I did not fully understand this as a teenager. But after being a design student, being a design professional, teaching in an art college, and now working in the ceramics field, the difference between my education, and a fine arts education, is something I think about a lot. I feel lucky and grateful to have made that choice.
In the mid 90s, the economy was in recession, the university was cutting costs, and the design programs were eliminated. These were small programs, and there were active design programs at other UMD campuses. One of my former professors ended up teaching in the Department of Art. He described how different things were there. Suddenly, when he gave someone a B on a project, he would hear from that kid’s parents, demanding that the grade be changed to an A. My classmates and I howled with laughter. When we were his students, we knew that As were rare and only for truly exceptional ideas and effort, and we never felt entitled to them.
This was the culture I experienced in college. I grew up so much during those years. It felt like an accomplishment to be voted “class artist” in high school. But college is way more competitive, there are so many talented students, and suddenly I was getting critiqued for the first time! Also new to me were deadlines, craftsmanship, the whole functional aspect of design, and what seemed like an insane amount of work (I will end up feeling differently about the workload later, keep reading). We had a semester-long class called “Professional Skills” where we learned how to put together a resume and a portfolio, how to apply for jobs, how to be interviewed, and about the various career formats that were available to us. To those who think this is too “vocational,” if only they understood the value of what they missed.
I still have a box full of samples from my 20 year design career.
In the early 2000s, I taught for a couple of years at a well-known art college in DC. The commercial arts departments of this college were taught mostly by adjuncts, similar to the education I received. Our classes were in a building several miles from the college’s main location. So I didn’t mingle with the fine arts teachers. Until someone created a listserv for professors of this college. At first it was fun, but before long I saw the severe culture differences between fine arts teachers and design teachers. Again, we were mostly adjuncts, and they were mostly full-time. For example, the college had been charging them $5/month for parking at their downtown building. The fee was being increased to $15/month. The whining was unbelievable. I had spent a few years working in an office downtown, where parking spaces had been $125/month. The complaints grew into vague screeds about how much abuse and indignity they had to suffer at the hands of their employer. The disconnect with reality, and the sense of victimhood, were a big shock. And then they started voicing their anger over how much adjuncts got paid, twisting it as “adjuncts get paid more than us” which was not true at all. Adjuncts got paid per class, not a full-time salary, which broke down to a higher per-hour rate. We got no benefits or job security. But that “per-hour” calculation was enough for full-timers to lose their shit. The story might be funny when it’s about college kids with overprotective parents. But when the story is about 50 year old art professors, it isn’t funny anymore.
I left that job after two years. I love teaching, and I really liked my colleagues in the computer graphics department. But I was really turned off by the culture I saw among the full-time teachers. This college had a fancy reputation, but underneath I saw something rotten. I didn’t want to be associated with it. And besides, even though some thought I was being paid too much per hour, I was charging much more than that in my private design practice. (That’s what a vocational education gets you.)
So back to the subject of “role models.” When I was a student, I’m not sure I fully appreciated it at the time. Now as a middle-aged adult, looking back on my career path, I now understand the importance of role models. You can learn the nuts and bolts of any field in a classroom. But being a professional anything takes a lot more than nuts and bolts knowledge. Good role models show you, in a much more comprehensive way, “this is the type of person you need to be after you get out of school.”
I’m sure there are exceptions to what I’m about to say. But in my experience, those with fine arts educations, including ceramics, probably did not have access to real world role models. They were taught by people who have never ventured very far from a college campus themselves. The system that hires fine arts professors favors those who have paid the most into the academic system. Academia tries to prove its own relevance by requiring its teachers to have MFAs, which are not cheap! There are no scholarships or grants to pay you to get an MFA. You pay for them yourself, to the tune of $50,000 to $75,000. And this is on top of the cost of your bachelor’s degree.
Those who manage to land a rare job in academia are very possessive about it. This is another reason why fine arts programs can’t hire working artists to teach as adjuncts, and bring more real world experience to college classrooms. Their culture depends too much on things like “tenure” and “full-time.” Adjuncts, with our independence from such things, are a threat to them. Just look at the contempt that the full-timers had for adjuncts at the school where I taught.
It’s hard to quantify exactly how much (or how little) an art degree is worth, but here is a report titled Artists Report Back, A National Study on the Lives of Art Graduates and Working Artists that tried to do so. I recommend reading the whole thing, but here are some key points:
• Among those with fine arts degrees, only 10% of them become working artists.
• Among working artists, only 16% of them have fine arts degrees. 40% of them have no bachelor’s degree at all.
• 7 of the 10 most expensive colleges in the U.S. are art colleges.
• The average earnings of working artists is $30,000 per year. Those with art degrees are doing a little better, averaging $36,000 per year.
• Designers and architects were excluded from both the “art graduate” and “working artist” data, because their higher earnings significantly skewed the data.
To summarize in my own words, for those who paid up to $200,000 for a bachelor’s degree in art, 10% of them will earn $36,000 per year. Which is only $6,000 more per year than their counterparts who did not get an art degree, including many who do not have a bachelor’s degree at all. The other 90% will not become working artists.
The study authors summarize, “We acknowledge that some arts graduates are satisfied with work in other fields, but the fantasy of arts graduates’ future earnings in the arts should be discredited.”
Again, I feel lucky and grateful to have gone through a different system, with a totally different culture, and different values. Hooray for vocational school! Not only did my education set me up for the professional world, the experience of working as a designer also set me up to run a pottery studio.
Designers are taught how to take an idea and convert it into reality, using the elements of design, contextual relationships, time and space, hierarchy, color theory, etc. A good design is an aggregation of a bunch of complex parts, even for those of us who strive for simplicity in our final outcomes. We are taught how to put the parts together, and how to make them work with each other. And to speak the message that we want to convey. Now I use all of these skills when developing pottery designs. By now, I have seen plenty of “wow” pottery made by other potters, but so much more that was an “almost wow,” where somebody didn’t quite put it all together. Including work by potters who were formally educated. Or, they only learned how to make work that looks exactly like an established potter’s work, rather than learning how to build complete designs out of their own ideas.
We also learn the “design process,” starting with a concept, followed by a first draft (or three), followed by cycles of review and revisions, until finally all of the issues are resolved. I’ve seen so many good potters who will make a new design for the first time, shrug and put it out for sale. They don’t seem to understand that the first attempt at a new design is never a complete design. The complex parts need to be resolved. When I put first drafts out for sale, they are viewed as prototypes and their job is to gather feedback, not to be regarded as finished designs. I’ve also seen professional potters scrap their entire line of work, and start working in a completely different aesthetic without any testing or feedback. That’s not professional art, that’s gambling! A new aesthetic also needs to go through the design process.
Remember when I said that studying design was an insane amount of work? Our design classes involved maybe three projects per semester. It seemed overwhelming to a student because there is so much to learn, and all of those details to resolve. About three years into my professional career, one day at work I stopped and counted my projects, and realized I had completed 17 of them in the past month. The projects were not any less complicated, but my brain had evolved to process and resolve the details much faster. This is why many potters don’t bother with the design process when developing new pots or aesthetics. When you’re not used to doing it, it seems overwhelming. But after you have done it hundreds and hundreds of times, it seems like a normal thing to do, and it can be done quickly.
As a designer, the design process is followed by a technical post-production process, which allows a printer to take the finished design and reproduce it. This is one area where formally-educated potters get what they need. The technical training in college pottery programs is strong. My issue with academia on this subject is that it doesn’t take four years, or the expense of a bachelor’s degree, to learn this. I had a high-school nerd’s background in chemistry, which helps. But in general, the technical side of pottery can be learned through books, workshops, and community colleges, for much cheaper than a bachelor's degree. The same is actually true for the production aspects of design. My college training in design production was “the old way,” involving photo-typesetting, wax, non-repro blue pencils, rule tape, etc. Within two years after I graduated, it was all being done on computers. I had to learn production all over again. But it didn’t require going back to college. Today, these skills can be learned in adult education settings, faster and much cheaper. The valuable part of my college degree was the “how to think like a designer” part.
Designers learn to take the word “deadline” very seriously. I’ve met so many artists who have no idea how to manage their time. Or they have no concept of “parameters” at all, things like time, budgets, continuity, graphic standards, etc. Part of a designer’s training is to have these concepts drilled in. This has been a big advantage for me as a potter too. There’s a big difference between the festival artists who read the exhibitor packets in advance, and therefore show up knowing all of the show’s rules and logistics, and the artists who wing it, in terms of who has an easier time at the show. And who has enough energy for a year-round schedule of shows. Your level of preparedness also impacts your relationships with show producers, and your fellow artists. I also had a big advantage when working in the wholesale sector of the craft industry. As I took orders at a trade show, I would tell the buyer the exact date to expect their order. This is apparently very different from the way most wholesale potters/artists treat delivery timeframes. Many give their buyers a big window of delivery time, and don’t think it’s a big deal to be late. There was one order where I had to miss a deadline due to a bad firing. I called the buyer, told her what happened, and asked for two more weeks. She practically gushed at being told in advance that the delivery would be late. I entered the wholesale marketplace in 2007, at the beginning of the last recession. And even though many artists and galleries struggled during the years that followed, my pottery studio grew from part-time to full-time during those years. I believe my dependable approach was a big help to buyers who were under a lot of stress.
Criticism and feedback are big chunks of a designer’s workflow. We process it all, and try to get the most out of it. We learn to distinguish the valid from the invalid. We learn to understand the motives behind it. I don’t see it as a personal attack. As a festival artist, for every sale I make, dozens of people walked out of my booth and thought “nah.” It doesn’t bother me. But a lot of artists cannot stomach that much perceived rejection. I’ve seen many talented artists who fall apart when criticized. Or get angry. They have no ability to use feedback as a tool. Again, I suspect this is because they didn’t have the right teachers. Or maybe when they had a good teacher, their parents intervened when that teacher gave them a B.
Lots of feedback from other people also causes you to develop a strong sense of your own personal aesthetic values. This is another area where a lot of aspiring potters struggle. They are searching for their “voice” or their “look” and don’t know where to start. Designers don’t have to search. After hearing so many opinions about our work for years, we know exactly what we believe. At the very beginning of my pottery business, I was thinking “I want to make quiet, understated pottery, using gray and white glazes on brown clay. Rustic, but also modern. Functionality will be my highest priority, with strong nods towards historical Korean pottery.” These values have carried me all the way to today.
Designers get their creative brains into gear whether they feel like it or not. This has shaped my overall attitude towards working, which is different than a lot of artists. Another artist at a show once said to me “You must be sick of making mugs.” I answered “No, not really. When you decide to become a professional potter, you just have to accept that you’re gonna make thousands of mugs, and you need to be positive about it.” Pulling mug handles is admittedly not my favorite task. But I have never lost sight of the fact that being a potter is a great privilege, and an indulgent choice. The least I can do is work my butt off. Too many artists believe they have to right to work only when they feel “inspired.” I roll my eyes.
Finally, maybe the most important thing about my design training, as it relates to my pottery business, is that graphic design is a job that can be easily formatted for self-employment. Especially after all the production was shifted to desktop computers. And it helped to have role models for self-employment as college professors. I became self-employed at age 26. By the time I launched a part-time pottery business, I had been running a design business for 6 years. Over the years I have met so many potters, and artists in general, who have never learned basic business practices. In fact, I’ve met many artists who have confused and conflicted ideas about money. They all dream of getting paid but don’t want to be seen as a “sell out.” Designers don’t see money or business as something “dirty.” We see it as earning a honest living, which is part of being a responsible adult.
And here’s another huge benefit to having built a design business first. It took eight years for the pottery business to grow into a real income, and during those years I did not go hungry. This is something that pains me greatly about those with ceramics degrees. Many of them leave college believing they can make an income right away. Nobody told them it would take years, maybe a decade, to slowly grow their business. You need to have an income during those early years. Thanks to my design business, I never had to make decisions about my pottery that were driven by financial pressure. I developed my body of work, and my audience, in ways that never felt like a compromise. The design business afforded me the space and time I needed to succeed at pottery on my own terms.
Really, the whole point of this blog post is to talk about the reasons why most art businesses fail: lack of financial wherewithal, poor work ethic, can’t manage parameters, can’t take criticism, can’t objectively shepherd their creativity into viable work. I believe this type of training is missing from most artists’ educations. At some point while I was becoming a potter, it dawned on me that the reason I do not suffer from these things is because I became a designer first.